Her clothes are worn by stars like Lee Jung-Jae of “Squid Games,” Choi Woo-Shik of “Parasite” and members of the Okay-pop sensation BTS. But when the South Korean designer Woo Young-mi made her worldwide debut in 2002, few individuals believed high-end style may come out of a rustic identified for its war-torn historical past.

Ms. Woo, or Madame Woo, as she’s usually known as, is arguably one of the vital profitable Korean designers. She is the chief govt of the Solid Corporation, an organization that controls two profitable labels: Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi. She turned the primary Korean member of the French Federation of Fashion in 2011, and her Wooyoungmi line is now a staple at luxurious retailers like Le Bon Marché, Selfridges and Ssense.

Ms. Woo has lived on and off in Paris for about 20 years, and has had entrance row seats to South Korea’s emergence as a cultural juggernaut. It’s a phenomenon that she has contributed to and benefited from all through her profession, she stated.

Born in 1959, Ms. Woo grew up in Seoul throughout a time of speedy financial growth that adopted the top of the Korean War. “The national motto was ‘work hard and live well,’” she stated. “Caring about fashion was seen as a social evil, especially for men.”

But Ms. Woo had an unconventional upbringing that gave her a pure affinity for the humanities. Her mom, an artwork trainer, dressed her and her 4 siblings in distinctive, selfmade garments that made them stand out at college. Her father was an architect with solely occasional work who socialized with American troopers, collected uncommon gadgets and invested in his look. Among his possessions, she recalled, have been items of Bauhaus furnishings, European style magazines and an extended, leather-based coat paying homage to one Clint Eastwood might need worn.

“At that time, 95 percent of men dressed the same,” she stated. “Fathers wore suits and uniforms to their offices and factories, but my dad spent 80 percent of his passion on looking good,” she stated, citing him as the explanation she finally pursued males’s put on design and is usually impressed by artwork and structure.

“Honestly, I felt ashamed by all of it — the way our house was decorated, the clothes I had to wear — but looking back on it now, I think my father was a very creative, very cool person,” she stated.

Despite her background, she by no means considered being a designer as a result of, she stated, “words like ‘fashion designer’ didn’t exist in Korea then.” She didn’t cross an examination for entry to regulation college, which she known as “fate.”

Ms. Woo stated she had “momentary illusions of genius” all through her style programs at Sungkyunkwan University, however it wasn’t till she was invited to compete on the 1983 Osaka Fashion Collection that she began to dream large.

Hyunji Nam, the lead editor of Korean content material at Ssense, stated that when it got here style, Japan and South Korea have been on very completely different enjoying fields on the time. “By the end of the 1980s, Japanese fashion was already becoming recognized abroad because of the work of names like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake,” she stated. “But South Korea didn’t have the national power to support fashion in or outside of the country, and most designers, regardless of how talented they were, had few opportunities to show their work in or outside of Korea.”

The journey to Osaka was Ms. Woo’s first overseas, and he or she was intimidated, not solely as a competitor but in addition as a Korean amongst a bunch of countries with extra established style histories. She remembered the opposite nations coming in teams — coalitions of individuals from Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore — and he or she, a lone Korean. She stayed up the night time earlier than the competitors, a needle trembling in her fingers as she accomplished her minimalist tackle hanbok (conventional Korean costume). She was surprised when she was awarded the prize.

“In Korea, no one cared that such a competition existed, and no one cared that a Korean was able to win, but it inspired me to think big about fashion,” she stated.

Ms. Woo bounced round a number of Korean style conglomerates earlier than beginning her first enterprise in 1998, a small boutique in Seoul, together with her youthful sister, Jang-Hee. “She was the one who always told me I could do it, when I felt like I couldn’t,” Ms. Woo stated about her lifelong enterprise accomplice, who died in 2015.

They known as the ready-to-wear males’s put on label Solid Homme and described it as garments for his or her splendid man. “I imagined him to be straight and narrow, the sort of good guy most girls would want to marry,” Ms. Woo stated. The outcomes have been clean-cut, minimal seems to be that many on the time described as metrosexual.

Ms. Woo stated the label hit the market on the proper time: simply forward of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Foreign vacationers and Olympics attendees have been flooding the capital, and Koreans have been changing into interested by how non-Koreans regarded and changing into extra open-minded a couple of variety of kinds, she stated.

In specific, Solid Homme caught the attention of two teams of trendsetters. The first have been known as Orenji-jok (Orange tribe), a gaggle of rich youngsters and 20-somethings, usually from the Gangnam district in Seoul. They had traveled overseas and have been interested by style with a Western edge.

The second have been Korean music’s first ballad singers, like Lee Moon-sae, Lee Seung-Chul and Yoon Sang, who catered to principally feminine audiences. Solid Homme grew through phrase of mouth and superstar publicity.

“Solid Homme and Wooyoungmi have been go-to brands for male Korean celebrities for as long as I can remember,” stated Gianna Hwang, a stylist for purchasers like Lee Jung-Jae, Eric Nam and Song Kang. “It’s not easy for a men’s wear company to achieve this kind of soft but beautiful look that both these brands possess. Her clothes are slightly oversize, as per the trend nowadays, but overall, they have an amazing fit, which is the most important thing if you’re dressing men.”

Today, with extra Korean celebrities touring abroad for style shoots, there’s a rising dialog about including hints of Korean fashion to outfits. “There are a lot of worthwhile Korean brands nowadays, but neither Solid Homme or Wooyoungmi are just Korean brands,” Ms. Hwang stated. Ms. Woo, she added, is “a great designer who only happens to be Korean.”

Fourteen years into Solid Homme’s success, Ms. Woo stated it wasn’t sufficient that she was doing effectively in Korea. She needed to create a luxurious model for a extra subtle and delicate grownup, unafraid to be susceptible. And regardless of buddies and acquaintances expressing concern, she needed to do it in Paris, the style capital of the world.

“They told me I was crazy,” she stated. “First, they said I couldn’t do it because I’m Korean. Then they said it’d be all the more impossible because I was a woman.”

Others recommended that if she needed to attraction to Europeans, she ought to play up her label’s Korean-ness and make garments that regarded extra visibly Asian. “They said it was like trying to sell croissants in Paris,” Ms. Woo stated.

“If you want to make it as a Korean, you have to sell tteok,” she stated, referring to Korean rice desserts. “You have to make something they don’t already have. But what could I do? I wanted to make croissants.”

The French style scene did certainly grow to be uninviting to her. At Paris Fashion Week, Wooyoungmi’s present time slot was rescheduled a number of instances — even after invites had been despatched — and fashions she had employed have been scouted by different designers, she stated. The assortment lastly debuted on a Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the morning after the most important Fashion Week events, to fewer than 150 visitors. Were it not for one constructive overview in Le Figaro, she stated, she might need given up altogether.

Ms. Woo vowed to turn into a full member of the French Federation of Fashion, believing a seat on the desk was the one strategy to safe the label’s future at Paris Fashion Week, however the path there wasn’t straightforward.

Until 2009, her crew operated with out an workplace in Paris, introduced all the pieces — scissors, needles, thread — from Korea and labored out of resort rooms. On a number of events, she was rejected by showrooms that wouldn’t take an opportunity on a Korean designer. One of probably the most humiliating experiences, she stated, was at a gathering with a showroom by which the homeowners spoke over her in French — “Korea? Do you know where that is? Are Koreans doing fashion now?” — as if she couldn’t perceive.

“I held it together until the meeting was over and cried and cried afterward,” she stated. “But I showed there, did well there and left on my own accord just like I promised myself I would.”

In the final decade there was a shift in how Korean style, and males’s style specifically, is talked about.

The South Korean luxurious market boomed and now ranks the seventh largest on the earth, in line with Euromonitor, a market analysis agency. Sales of males’s skin-care merchandise alone elevated 44 % between 2011 and 2017. And, after all, as Korean males make investments extra money and time on style, the world is seeing extra of them.

“It’s not like one thing happened after another,” Ms. Woo stated. “It’s that all these factors interacted with one another.” Then she added, “It was also me.”

Wooyoungmi now has 44 shops throughout Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Ms. Woo has expanded into jewellery, equipment and ladies’s put on. Last yr, she collaborated with Samsung on restricted editions of Wearable Wooyoungmi gadgets. According to information by Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service, the Solid Corporation earned 54.8 billion gained ($46 million on the time) in 2020, up 20 % from two years earlier.

“Wooyoungmi elevated the perception of Korean fashion overseas by proving it could be done,” Ms. Nam, of Ssense, stated. “A Korean designer could be a regular at Paris Fashion Week. A Korean brand could be sold at luxury department stores.”

Ms. Woo, she added, “paved the way for future designers to come.”